Anne hears that an old school friend of hers, Miss Hamilton now Mrs. Smith, is in Bath. After school, Mrs. Smith had married a rich man, but he was extravagant. Two years ago, he had died, leaving her a widow and deeply in debt. Soon afterwards, s he contracted rheumatic fever and was crippled by her illness. Anne decides that she must go visit her old friend, who is now almost entirely excluded from society.
When she visits Mrs. Smith, she finds that her friend's good spirits and good manners have not left her, though she is now in an awful situation. Mrs. Smith makes a living by selling her needlework to the wealthier women of Bath. They re-establish their f riendship and Anne promises to visit often.
One night, the Elliots receive an invitation to the Dalrymples' place, and Anne tells her family she must decline it because she has an engagement to visit Mrs. Smith. Sir Walter is horrified that Anne should be visiting such a poor neighborhood and is appalled that she chooses to associate with someone so much lower in consequence than herself.
The dinner party allows Mr. Elliot and Lady Russell to talk. Mr. Elliot expresses his high regard for Anne's character, and Lady Russell becomes convinced that he means to court Anne and not Elizabeth. This decision pleases Lady Russell immens ely, as she would love to see Anne, her favorite, holding her mother's place as Lady Elliot of Kellynch Hall. She thinks Anne is just like her mother in disposition and virtue. Though Anne loves the idea of becoming the future Lady Elliot, she remains sus picious of Mr. Elliot's motives and character. She finds him agreeable, but neither warm nor open.
A letter arrives for Anne from Mary, and Anne is pleased to learn that the Crofts have come to Bath. Mary's letter also brings Anne the news that Louisa Musgrove has become engaged to Captain Benwick. To everyone's surprise, they have fall en in love while Louisa was recovering at the Harvilles' home. Mary says that Benwick is not a good match for Louisa, but Mary considers it much better than marrying among the Hayters.
Anne is entirely pleased by this news, both because she thinks it very healthy for Captain Benwick to be attached to a young woman, and because this means that Captain Wentworth is once again free. Although she thinks their temperaments very different (Louisa is high-spirited and joyous; Captain Benwick more pensive and thoughtful), she is happy that they have found love.
With the Crofts in Bath, Anne looks forward to seeing them frequently. One morning, she has the good fortune to meet the Admiral while walking. He seems happy to see her and he relates to her his knowledge of the engagement between Captain Benwick and Lou isa. He tells her that he and Mrs. Croft are surprised because they expected Louisa to marry their brother, Captain Frederick Wentworth. He tells her that Frederick does not seem to be upset over the news of the engagement. He suggests that Captain Wentwo rth come to Bath, as there are many young, available women here for him to court.
Austen's novels are famous for their use of irony. Irony is hiding what is actually the case, not in order to deceive, but to achieve special rhetorical or artistic effects. Austen uses irony to hint at deeper observations of social life and customs. It is ironic that Captain Benwick proposes to Louisa because they are such an unlikely match. Yet their engagement suggests Austen's observation of different kinds of marriages in society. Austen shows that not every couple is like Anne and Captain Wentworth , entirely suited in temperament. Instead, some people marry because they happen to find something close to what they are looking for at a certain point in their life. Both Captain Benwick and Louisa are in somewhat needy and desperate situations. Benwick is recovering from the death of his fiancee, and Louisa is recovering from her fall. Although Austen finds their match amusing, she does not condemn a match made under such conditions. Rather, her irony serves to highlight her skepticism of true love. Th e kind of connection which Anne and Wentworth have is rare indeed, and the practical side of this novel emphasizes the good fortune of finding someone from a corresponding social class who will make you tolerably happy. Love is not merely a matter of shar ed passion, but of shared learning.
Mrs. Smith's sad situation once again highlights the danger women must face in a society where they have increased social mobility. Mrs. Smith has fallen drastically in her rank and consequence since her marriage and the subsequent death of her husband. H er situation illustrates the potential cruelty of such a strongly class-based society. Not only is Mrs. Smith poor and crippled, she is relatively friendless. Few will visit her in her meager lodgings. Anne's visit is a testament to her own personal chara cter, independence of mind, and willingness to look past social rank.